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Restore Our Destiny: Full Funding for Public Libraries


Libraries are tax-supported public goods.  They should remain that way for the sake of libraries and the public they serve. Steve Coffman chooses “plural funding” and a greater emphasis on private fund raising.  I choose full funding for libraries based on increased tax support.

 In the February 1, 2004 issue of American Libraries, Steve Coffman of Library Systems and Services Inc.  (LSSI), a private library consulting firm, urged public libraries everywhere to follow the lead of public radio and museums into what he calls “plural funding.”   

 In his article, Coffman notes that “in the last 20 years public radio was forced to diversify its funding base away from tax support and towards private fund raising.”  He makes the tar pit of fund raising and value prostitution into which public radio and television have been thrown sound like a desired destination!  Says Coffman in the February issue of American Libraries: “Libraries too should consider plural funding strategies. Rather than wasting energies on ill-conceived Campaigns to Save America's Libraries and similar efforts that try to convince governments to give us tax monies they do not have, we should focus on developing new funding models and strategies to help save ourselves.”

 It is the urgent duty of public librarians to put the “good” back into the “public good” of the public library movement.  We have been beaten down by incessant attacks about the value public libraries.  The latest budget attacks, the calls for outsourcing, the tax cuts, and privatization efforts have taken their toll on our resolve, it seems.  Still, I believe that the rest of us applaud and support ALA’s Campaign to Save America’s Libraries and other lobbying efforts for libraries.

 Libraries are a Tax Supported Public Good

This article supports the value of the tax supported library as a public good.  Yes, let’s say it: - the tax-supported value – say it again; the tax supported value of libraries is a good thing!  Public libraries can and do rely on a multiple sources of funding, but they are tax supported public goods first, foremost, and always.  There it is the simplest answer: public libraries are a tax supported public good. 

 Do I eschew the value of donations to public libraries?  Of course I don’t.  Carnegie in his day, and Bill Gates in ours are just the most generous of thousands upon thousands that have given substantial funds to public libraries.  We will continue to enjoy such donations in the future, just as we will continue to have the benefit of friends groups that donate time and talent to libraries.  But Coffman is steering us in the wrong direction by urging libraries to make fund-raising on the NPR model a much higher priority.  I will recommend sounder strategies late in this article. 

Mythic Proportions

 Coffman notes that most public libraries serve smaller communities with inadequate population for successful fundraising. He notes that it is difficult to raise sufficient pledge funds to cover expenses in cities with a population of less than 100,000.  His recommended strategy writes off half the nation and 95% of the libraries in the country. 

 Consider the outcome for the sparsely populated half if that strategy turned out to be as successful as Coffman believes for the metropolitan areas.  The 8,500 libraries in markets too small to do the his recommended type of fund raising will be chastised by their governing bodies for failing to take advantage of this new plural funding paradigm. Many libraries will be punished for failing to do the impossible.  Even in major urban areas, there are communities that have less fundraising potential than others, of course.

 There is a great potential for poaching or appearing to poach on another library’s territory in the major metropolitan centers he recommends where jurisdictions overlap greatly. The pattern of public library services in most metropolitan areas is fragmented and plural rather than the unitary market that Coffman assumes. 

 Take, for example, the area with which I am most familiar: the Milwaukee metropolitan area.  The metropolitan area, defined as Milwaukee county and its four adjacent counties, has a total population of about 1.7 million.  There are about 6 public radio stations serving the market and 46 public libraries.  The six public radio stations can market to the entire area because for purposes of the airwaves, people and potential donors consider themselves part of the metropolitan Milwaukee area. 

The situation is far more fragmented when it comes to library services, however.  The City of Milwaukee has about 600,000 of that 1.7 million population.  The remaining 45 libraries, serving the remaining 1.1 million population, average 24,000 residents each.  If Coffman is right, then only Milwaukee can do NPR style fundraising while the remaining suburban libraries cannot.  Yet it is in the more affluent suburbs that two out of three metro area residents live.   Can these 45 libraries all receive their fair share of the plural funding Coffman recommends without poaching on one another’s territory? 

Better Options 

In effect Coffman argues that the current budget crisis for states and local government has fundamentally altered the way public libraries should be funded and that they must look to a new paradigm, the NPR model of plural funding.  I disagree, and the data show that most Americans disagree as well.  As I noted in “Performing Triage on Library Budgets in the Red,” (American Libraries.  March 2003, pg. 36+), we have weathered the Great Depression and World War II; we can get through this recession without radically changing the game plan. There are other tax support activities that ALA should support beyond the Campaign for America’s Libraries. 

 Here is what we need to do:

 Plan well and focus on the library’s mission and goals

Solid planning is more critical in tough budget times even if it is tougher to find the resources to do the planning.  Long ago corporate planners coined the phrase that “having lost sight of our objectives we re-doubled our efforts.”  The board, the staff, the governing body, and the public should all be able to look to the library’s long range plan as a map of where the library is going.  An effective plan is the prelude to the next step: communicating the library’s value.

 Communicate the library’s value effectively

Politicians running for office know that “staying on message” is critical. Every library needs a communications plan.  This entails developing a communications plan that outlines the ways the library will get its message to the staff, the governing body and all the constituencies it serves. A communications plan deals with all facets of communicating to a library’s stakeholders.  It is not just a plan for sending press releases to local media.  Two great sources for libraries for writing communications strategies are:

  • Walters, Suzanne. Marketing: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians.  Neal Schuman, 2003

  • Karp, Rashelle S.  Powerful Public Relations: A How-To Guide for LibrariesChicago, American Library Association, 2002. 


Establish or use model library district laws

Library districts are the fastest growing and best funded types of library organizations in the U.S. but only 40% of states authorize them.  Where they are allowed, libraries should consider establishing them.  Where they are not, library leaders should develop enabling legislation. ALA should take the lead in developing model district laws for states to follow. 

Library districts that go directly to the voters for funding do better than municipal libraries in total funding available.  These pages expand on that article:   http://www.haplr-index.com/wider_and_wiser_units.htm

In 2003, Keith Lance published a Colorado Research Service Fast Fact Sheet on district libraries in Colorado.  That report very convincingly demonstrates the funding advantage districts have over municipal libraries See: http://www.lrs.org/documents/fastfacts/193_nonfunding.pdf

Establish or use model impact fee laws

Impact fees allow communities to assess up-front costs on new homes as they are built. They allow communities to levy a fee to offset the impact that a new household has on the ability of a library to sustain its service level.  Impact fees are not legal in some states, and quite controversial in many others.  Developers often oppose them and governing bodies have mixed responses. The theory behind impact fees is that new residents impose an impact on the library that should be borne by the new resident rather than current residents.

We need model state laws, model local ordinances and specific examples of successful impact fee development. It is time for ALA and state associations to promote impact fees. Give libraries that could benefit from impact fees the guidance, tools, and blueprints to make them a reality.  I deal with establishing impact fee statements in my book for Neal-Schuman, Hennen’s Public Library Planner.  I have also covered the issues in the March 2003 issue of American Libraries,“Performing Triage on Library Budgets in the Red,” and on my Web site at:


Establish national standards for public libraries

ALA abandoned national library standards in the early 1970’s.  Lacking national standards, states have been left with the task.  Many argued that standards hold back well funded and high performing libraries without really helping libraries that are below standard requirements.  Some states, like Iowa and Wisconsin, have established tiered standards to help deal with these problems.  I covered the need for national standards in my March 2000 American Libraries article “Why We Should Establish a National System of Standards.”  An adjunct to that article is available at: http://www.haplr-index.com/backtobasics.html

 Good planning involves community input and goal setting but the lack of standards leaves far too many libraries floundering. National standards with tiered levels for basic, moderate, enhanced and excellent services should be re-instated along with the prescription to apply planning principles in every library.

Lobby for libraries as a tax supported public good

Lobbying at the local, state and national level is more critical now than ever because of the recession, anti-tax climate, and the misguided belief that the Internet has supplanted the need for libraries.  Coffman may have dismissed ALA’s Campaign for America’s Libraries, but I do not.   The campaign has many tools and resources for getting the word out to our elected officials on the value of libraries to their constituents.  See:



The Wisconsin Library Association recently kicked off an election year campaign, "I Love Libraries and I Vote," designed to encourage library users to vote and remind those running for public office that many voters care deeply about libraries of all kinds. The Wisconsin Public Library Consortium showed that library users are more likely to vote than non library users.  See: http://www.wla.lib.wi.us/legis/lovelibs/index.htm



Coffman’s article urges us to follow the NPR path of “plural funding” and greatly expanded private funding.  This article has urged libraries to seek to have libraries seen as a tax supported public good, the simpler theory. 


Sidebar: Follow the Money

Our ancestors determined long ago that tax supported public libraries were the better option for our society.  The public still thinks so.  Survey after survey tells us that.

Consider just two recent examples: the ALA @ your library: Attitutudes toward Public Libraries Survey, and the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium Survey.  Both recent surveys were scientifically conducted and both found overwhelming satisfaction with services.  More importantly, both found that the majority of voters would gladly support increased amounts of tax support for public library services.  The Wisconsin study found a higher rate of voting behavior among library users, a key data item for library supporters.  The ALA study found that while current public library spending per capita is about $25, more than half of those polled believe that $26 to $100 in tax funds should be spent on libraries.


The survey results noted above are proven again and again in the real world.  People are not just telling survey-takers fairy tales about their support for increased library support through taxation.  Year in and year out, voters pass over 80% of building referendums.  They do so even in the midst of a recession and the contraction of state and municipal budgets everywhere.   As I noted in my rarticle for AL ("Are Wider Library Units Wiser?" in American Libraries.  June/July 2002, pg. 65+) library districts that go directly to the voters for funding do better than municipal libraries in total funding available. 

Coffman did not muddy the water with appeals for user fees, but it would appear to be the logical outcome of his line of reasoning.  Certainly the elected officials to whom he directed his article in American City and County will quickly go there, however.  That is the trouble with this NPR paradigm.  It is a slippery slope: first plural funding, then “reasonable user fees.”  What’s next?


Sidebar: NPR Funding Numbers

Coffman compares public radio listeners to registered borrowers at a library.  He notes that a radio station with 300,000 listeners gets $5 million annually in donations.  That is $125 from each of 24,000 donors and $2.1 million from corporate donors.  He believes that a library with a similar number of registered borrowers will fare as well, but let’s examine the assumptions here. 

Assume a registration rate of 60% of the population.  That implies a population of 500,000 to get the 300,000 borrowers that Coffman posits.  Roughly half of these borrowers will be children – unlikely donors in the $125 per year category.

Coffman notes that only one in twelve public radio listeners contribute. Let us assume that rate for 150,000 adult registered borrowers to get 12,500 donors.  Coffman notes that though he used $125 in his example the nation wide average is closer to $100.  If 12,500 cardholders each donate $100 per year the library would generate $1.25 million per year.  Although that may sound like a lot, consider that the average library serving 500,000 residents has a $15 million budget ($30 per capita).

Thus using Coffman’s rather optimistic assumptions, we end up with a library that generates less than 10% of its annual operating needs from his plural funding strategy.  Unless, that is, we are to believe that the library could also find as much advertising revenue (whoops, I mean corporate underwriting support) as does public radio.  Short of putting ads on every book shelf or re-naming the library annually, that is unlikely for most libraries.



Thomas J. Hennen Jr. is the Director of Waukesha County Federated Library System in Wisconsin, the creator of the HAPLR Library Ratings(haplr-index.com), and the author of the 2004 book Hennen’s Public Library Planning from Neal-Schuman at:


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